Very longtime readers may recognize this story, but I originally posted it six or seven years ago, and it’s relevant, so I’m telling it again.
Back in 2002 I attended my first Dragon*Con (which was awesome). Coincidentally, I’d just finished writing my Very First Novel, a totally abysmal medieval romance. (Seriously, I wish I still had the printed mss to scan some of it to show you. While I still believe it had a couple of quite good scenes, for the most part it was pretty bad: overdramatic characters, contrived plot points, an Evil Ex Lover making silly threats, a Big Misunderstanding…I honestly barely remember the plot at this point, but trust me, it was lame.)
Anyway. There I was at Dragon*Con, and I happened to notice a panel on women writing, so I hopped on over to see it. It was held in a tiny room in the basement, and there were maybe fifteen people there, which was quite sad as the panelists included Betty Ballantine and a writer I hadn’t heard of named Sherrilyn Kenyon.
It turned out, though, that Sherrilyn Kenyon also wrote under the name Kinley MacGregor, and I’d just finished reading Kinley MacGregor’s BORN IN SIN, as part of my research-based orgy of romance reading. And in fact, BORN IN SIN had been one of my favorites of the romances I’d picked up. So once I realized Sherrilyn and Kinley were one and the same, I was quite excited.
Excited enough, in fact, to make a total idiot out of myself after the panel.
I went bopping up to Sherrilyn, all full of vim and eager puppy-dog dorkiness, and gushed at her that I, too, was a writer! I’d just finished my first romance and I was hoping to get it published! Thankfully I did manage to slip in there that I’d loved BORN IN SIN–although I did also say that I’d had no idea who Sherrilyn Kenyon was when I came to the panel and I was so excited to learn she was also Kinley MacGregor and was that information public, which, FFS, moron–but for the most part, I said the sort of things that make me shrink in embarrassment even now, over ten years later. I asked, stammering and blushing, if she thought I should get an agent, as if I could head for the phone book and hire one just like ordering a pizza (I may even have asked who her agent was; I have honestly blocked much of what I said from my memory). I believe I bragged about doing research and said how much I love the medieval period. And then, in a denouement so fucking ridiculous it makes me cringe, I said, “Maybe one day we’ll have the same publisher!”
Like we were going to play on the Avon softball team or something. Like we’d be Publisher Pals and spend our nights having giggly slumber parties and telling secrets. Like my very first mss ever was obviously just as good as any of her books, and of course I could just walk into a publishing contract simply by virtue of having completed a novel (which was, btw, over 114k words of facile plot contrivances and exclamation points. I didn’t even know not to capitalize the pronoun dialogue tag after dialogue ended in one of those exclamation points, so the book was full of shit like: ‘”Unhand me!” She shouted.’).
Sherrilyn was kindness itself. She gave absolutely no indication that she found my questions ridiculous or my lack of publishing knowledge silly and/or naive. She answered my questions nicely and wished me luck, and left me feeling that, well, maybe I’d been a bit nervous, but it was okay. She left me feeling positive and encouraged.
Now, at this point, I had joined the RWA. I’d done a bit of research on publishing; I knew better than to ask some of those questions. But I asked them anyway. Why? Because I was nervous. Because I was intimidated–I’d never met a real-life author before. Because I wanted to seem like I knew what I was talking about. Because I wanted to show her I was serious. And–this is important–because having read and really enjoyed her book, I felt there was some sort of connection between us. She had spoken to me in that book, and I had responded, and that meant something to me; it mattered to me.
I have never, ever forgotten that day. Yes, sometimes it’s a hauntingly humiliating memory, but I still haven’t forgotten it. I was just some red-faced idiot, and instead of responding with contempt, Sherrilyn Kenyon treated me with gentleness and respect.
But it’s not just her politeness that I remember. I remember the things I said, and WHY. All those reasons I listed above: being nervous, being intimidated, wanting to seem like I knew what I was talking about, feeling like there was a connection between us, like maybe we could be friends; like maybe on some level, insignificant as it was, we were friends. I felt like I knew Sherrilyn, a little bit; she had come into my home and entertained me for a while.
Quite recently there was a blog post written by an author wherein she complained about an email sent to her by a reader, which she felt was rude because it referred to her work as “her stuff” (as in “I bought all your stuff”) and said something like “Why aren’t you writing faster!? Get to work!” She rewrote the reader’s email to be more acceptable to her and went on to instruct readers on what questions not to ask authors, Because Rude, or Because Stupid, or something. She complained about being asked questions when the answers are on her website.
I’m not posting about this to pick on that author, which is one reason why I’m not linking to the discussion(s) about it or giving her name (and I have altered some of the quotes slightly, too). We all have bad days; we all make jokes that don’t come off, or get bad advice, or whatever, and she is human just as the rest of us are. As I’ve said before, internet pile-ons have gone way past the point of amusing for me and into nauseating territory, and that’s one big reason why I have cut back on my internet presence so sharply. This isn’t about her, really–although I admit I find it tremendously difficult to think of how awful that poor reader must feel, being held up as an object of scorn like that for the hideous crime of loving a writer’s work so much that she bought all of it and emailed the writer to tell her so, and asked eagerly when she can further support said writer by buying even more of her work, and I found the post pretty horrific–except that she’s sparked several discussions that break my heart.
Those discussions are from readers saying they’re going to think twice before contacting authors whose work they love, because they’re afraid they too will be publicly humiliated in such a rude and painful fashion if they say the wrong thing.
Guys…please don’t be afraid of that.
My story above is about Sherrilyn Kenyon, but I am absolutely certain that you could insert the name of almost any author on the planet and they would have responded with just as much grace. The fact is, hearing from people who love our books is one of the best things about this job. I can only speak for myself and a few of my friends, but I/we don’t seek out reviews. I/we don’t visit the Amazon pages for my books; I don’t Google them (or myself, unless I’m looking for something specific, like a guest blog post I’ve done somewhere or something); I don’t visit their Goodreads pages or my Goodreads Author page, in general. As I’ve said before, if someone directly sends me a link to a review, I will usually click and read it, because A) that’s a specific invitation for me to do so, which means B) it’s probably a positive review, and I like to retweet those or quote them here as a way of thanking the reviewer/giving them credit for the review without barging into their space.
Emails from readers are the most amazing things in the world. They are. I’ve gotten emails that have brought tears to my eyes. I’ve gotten emails that made me laugh. I’ve gotten emails that made me feel like I was floating for hours, all because someone out there took the time to hunt down my contact info and actually tell me, personally, how much they loved my work and that it meant something to them, really meant something. Without wishing to sound as though I’m making a dirty joke, something I wrote touched them, and they touched me back. Isn’t that what writing and reading are all about? A connection with someone else? Isn’t that why we do what we do, whether we’re writing or reading or reviewing–to feel something, to connect with something, to reach out to something? To share something?
Sure, I’ve gotten some rude emails, too. I’ve gotten a few so offensive and outright threatening that I contacted their IPs. I’ve gotten emails that called me names, that called my characters names, that accused me of all manner of nonsense. They’re not fun. But being asked eagerly when the next book is coming, and can’t I write faster, is not rude. It’s charming, and it’s sweet, and while we all know that intent is not magical, the fact remains that in those cases, when the intent is obviously to flatter, it’s rather silly to take offense. This isn’t a male co-worker telling you how hot you look today and then going, “But I meant it as a compliment! You’re sexy!” It’s someone expressing delight in our work, and that’s not an insult. Especially when if we stopped and thought about it we might realize that behind that email is someone trying to make a connection with us, someone perhaps a bit nervous, perhaps a bit intimidated, someone to whom we mean something and our work means something, and maybe because of that meaning they feel like they know us a little bit. Someone who, aside from everything else, is probably not a professional writer, and is writing private correspondence, and so perhaps cannot be expected to phrase everything in a way that perfectly suits and flatters and pleases us.
I never expect that anyone will be intimidated or nervous when speaking to or emailing me; I mean, who the fuck am I? Nobody of any importance. But I’m also aware that contacting anyone you don’t know personally can be intimidating or can make one nervous. I’m also aware that there are indeed people out there–I’ve met them, and more importantly I’ve been one and occasionally still am–who are nervous or intimidated meeting a writer whose work they love. I’d be willing to bet that when Sherrilyn Kenyon headed for that panel that day, she didn’t expect anyone to be nervous or intimidated at the thought of meeting her, and yet there I was with my face beet-red and my hands shaking as I wagged my Newbie Writer tail in desperate, eager neediness, so excited to be talking to a Real Writer that I pretty much ran down a checklist of silly questions and statements.
I have been horrendously lax in replying to my emails. I’m ashamed of it. I’m so far behind I don’t even know how far behind I am, and that’s inexcusable. But that also doesn’t change the fact that I read and am grateful for every one of those emails. And every writer I know feels the same.
So please, guys, don’t stop writing to us. It matters–you matter. Don’t think the fact that one writer was having a bad day or is rude or ungracious or pretentious or mean means we all sit around rubbing our hands just waiting to pick on you for misphrasing something or misspelling something or simply saying something in a way that doesn’t meet someone’s idea of how to correctly speak to An Author. Most of us don’t expect perfection and we don’t expect you to bow and scrape. We love you just as you are, and are interested in whatever you have to say, and are happy to answer what questions we can, when we can. When you email us we’re grateful, not insulted or offended or angry or upset. Hearing from readers is one of the best things that can happen to us, and if that stopped it would be heartbreaking.